The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
21 Dec 2012
by Andy Benoit
In short, the defense hasn’t gotten much consistency out of its normally potent pass rush lately. That has put more pressure on a secondary that’s been hindered by the struggles of cornerbacks Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara. Things aren’t awful in New York, but they’re far from steady.
Offensively, injuries to Hakeem Nicks have put a dent in the passing attack. Nicks is getting healthier, but likely won't be in his usual form until he gets an offseason to recover. Ahmad Bradshaw's sprained knee has recently taken a similar toll on New York’s ground game, but Bradshaw has proven before that he can bounce back from various injuries. The Giants have proven before that they can succeed without their star runner or top receivers. Eli Manning has a veteran offensive line and a system he’s very comfortable in, it’s just a matter of taking care of the football. His sloppy turnovers deep in Giants territory put his team in inescapable holes at Cincinnati in Week 10 and at Atlanta last week.
Baltimore’s issues on defense are pretty easy to pinpoint: injuries and an anemic pass rush. The two problems could be intertwined, as the loss of top cover artist and slot blitzer Lardarius Webb has made defensive coordinator Dean Pees (a noun, not a verb) less inclined to blitz. Normally the Ravens would still have the resources to generate pressure with a four-man rush, but Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata haven’t been entirely healthy this season. (They’re far from the only ones, too.) Consequently, Baltimore’s top pass rusher this year has been former underachiever Paul Kruger. The fourth-year pro has quick, strong hands and has learned to play with leverage. That said, he’s not dynamic enough to carry an entire front seven.
The problems on offense are more complex. As we’ve documented all season, the Ravens can’t seem to find an identity. They’re clearly at their best when focusing on the run game -- especially in formations that include Vonta Leach, the best fullback in the NFL. But they’ve made a concerted effort to build the offense around Joe Flacco and the passing game. Early on, this was paying dividends, as teams weren’t accustomed to Baltimore’s new no-huddle approach. But as the season has progressed, it’s become apparent that Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones can’t consistently beat man coverage. The playbook, with its heavy dose of isolation routes, doesn’t make things easy on the wideouts. What’s more, Ray Rice has struggled mentally and physically in pass protection. Defenses are overloading their blitzes and forcing him to stay in more as a blocker.
All of this puts pressure on Flacco. His cannon arm and underrated athleticism allow for a handful of outstanding individual plays each game. But great offenses rely on consistency from the pocket, not wow plays. Flacco has always been up-and-down in this sense, with the downs being too prevalent in recent weeks. He still has too many mental lapses prior to the snap, which have led to a lot of mistakes. (The best example: his failure to identify unaccounted blitzers two weeks ago at Washington.)
The Ravens need to stick with their base offensive personnel as much as possible and aim to sustain drives on the ground. They tried to do this against Denver, but couldn’t win often enough in the trenches to make it work. Sticking with base personnel will, in the very least, open up the play-action game, which is where Flacco is most effective in launching the ball downfield. Shot plays must remain a focal point because, though he’s inconsistent, Smith is still a speedy playmaker whom defenses must defend cautiously. (Smith's status is up in the air this week though, as he sustained a concussion in Week 15.) He can’t be considered the go-to receiver, though. That remains the role of chain-moving veteran Anquan Boldin. Unlike Smith, Boldin has the strength and versatility to operate inside, even though he has struggled to get separation lately. Tight end Dennis Pitta, a rising third-year pro, can also operate between the numbers. Pitta’s ability to detach from the formation and beat safeties in spaces gives the offense flexibility both in formations and play design. The more Baltimore features him, the harder it will be for defenses to dial in on Rice.
Though Baltimore has struggled against quality man coverage, don’t expect the Giants to play a lot of man-to-man Sunday. With the pass rush being less effective this season, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell knows his unit is only as good as its secondary. Fewell must schematically protect his cornerbacks. To explain what this means, let’s look at what happened in New York’s Week 12 win over Green Bay.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Ray Lewis’s (probable) return will help Baltimore’s run defense and pre-snap organization. This season, the Giants ground game has been anywhere from “tremendous” (see Week 6 at San Francisco or Week 14 against New Orleans) to “horrendous” (see last week at Atlanta or Week 9 against Pittsburgh). Bradshaw’s unsteady health has a lot to do with that. Even if Bradshaw, who sat out last week, can find his form down the stretch, the Giants will still have some inconsistency in the running game due to first-round rookie David Wilson assuming the change-of-pace carries in place of the injured Andre Brown. Wilson is an electrifying open-space player, but unlike Brown, he lacks patience and physicality.
In today’s NFL, leads can be protected on the ground, but they’re usually built through the air. Look for Manning to throw 40 times this Sunday, in part because the Giants will be eager to pick on Lewis in space. New York’s wideouts, particularly Victor Cruz, are superb with option routes underneath. The Giants do a good job of lifting coverages with tight end seam routes to create additional space inside. Even before he accumulated eight missed games worth of rust, the 37-year-old Lewis had become a significant liability in coverage. He doesn’t have anything close to the change-of-direction fluidity he'd need to defend Cruz. In fact, Lewis will likely be exposed by traditional play-action passes on first and second down as well, since he no longer has the vital recovery speed to get depth after biting up.
It’s astounding that we don’t hear more about quarters coverage in the NFL. It’s one of the most prevalent coverages around, mainly because it’s easy to disguise and mixes man and zone principles. The Ravens play a lot of quarters coverage. The Giants, with their refined route concepts out of 2x1 and 3x1 sets, are very good at attacking it. This is partially because the best way to attack it is (usually) downfield. The Giants have receivers who can run (even if Nicks has been a gear slower this year), a veteran offensive line that knows how to sustain pass blocks, and a superstar quarterback who sees the field well and can also make strong-armed throws while falling away from pressure. Look for them to attack this coverage downfield.
Let’s take a closer look at this coverage.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Jaguars offense vs. Patriots defense
One of the many disappointments in Jacksonville this season has been the play of rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon. While he hasn’t been awful, Blackmon certainly hasn’t made the type of consistent impact you’d expect from the No. 5 overall pick. Maybe things would be different if he played in a system more like New England’s. Patriots wide receivers frequently align tight to the formation and get to run routes off motion. Blackmon needs those sorts of boosts, as he hasn’t shown explosive quickness or acceleration in his breaks or out of a standstill off the line. We’ve seen success from him on crossing patterns, and there’s potential for improvement. But with his first full season almost in the books, there’s also plenty of room for improvement.
Patriots offense vs. Jaguars defense
Jacksonville’s corners have had a tough time in downfield coverage this season, particularly fourth-year man Derek Cox. Even though Brandon Lloyd’s role has expanded as of late, Cox won’t be targeted a whole lot on the outside. The New England passing game still takes place predominantly underneath. That means Rashean Mathis will wear the neon X. Mathis has spent the bulk of his 10-year career playing outside, mostly in Cover-2 schemes. But with the injury to Aaron Ross, and with sixth-round rookie Mike Harris getting more reps, Mathis has kicked inside to the slot. So far, the results have been acceptable but not notable. Wes Welker presents the biggest challenge yet.
Cowboys offense vs. Saints defense
There’s a new weapon in Big D: slot receiver Dwayne Harris. The 2011 sixth-round pick has gradually beaten out Kevin Ogletree and Cole Beasley for more playing time. Last Sunday against the Steelers, Harris almost won the game with his 39-yard punt return late in fourth quarter. He’s shown that sort of open-space explosiveness running after the catch, too. As Miles Austin proved when he frequently aligned in the slot during his breakout campaign a few years ago, the Cowboys offensive system makes great use of catch-and-run weapons inside. The Saints may have a tough time matching up with Harris, as with Corey White injured, Johnny Patrick and Elbert Mack have struggled sharing reps in the slot.
Saints offense vs. Cowboys defense
A lot of people have compared Mark Ingram to a certain Cowboys legend. Indeed, in full padding, Ingram shares a physical resemblance to Emmitt Smith. But on play alone, the 2011 first-rounder has not quite shown the lateral burst and initial quickness that propelled Smith to Canton. The media is told that Ingram is a "high volume" runner. Then why did the Saints, who were already loaded in the backfield and barely had enough balls for their existing weapons, trade up to draft him? In getting more carries the past two weeks (thanks to Chris Ivory’s injury), Ingram has had his two most productive games of the season. For this week, maybe that can continue. But unless there are changes to the Saints’ roster or playbook, don’t count on it in the long haul.
Bengals offense vs. Steelers defense
Pittsburgh is one of the few teams that A.J. Green hasn’t had great success against. The reason is Ike Taylor. At a lanky 6-foot-2, the veteran corner is perfectly built for defending the sinewy superstar. Taylor is adept in man and zone coverage and can carry receivers downfield with minimal safety help. (Lately against the Bengals, he’s gotten a healthy dose of safety help, as Cincy’s offense just doesn’t have any other receiver worth fearing.) Just one problem for the Steelers: Taylor is still out with a lower leg injury. And with Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis both dealing with hip flexors, it’s possible Green could find himself facing the likes of Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown. This week more than ever, the Steelers need their pass rush to come alive.
Steelers offense vs. Bengals defense
Your pardon please if this has been written too many times in Quick Reels, but the point can’t be emphasized enough: Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins has been, by far, the best 4-3 defensive tackle in football this season. He’s performed on a level close to J.J. Watt. Atkins leads the Bengals with 10.5 sacks. The pressure he generates via the bull-rush (and occasional gap shoot) is a big reason why the Bengals as a team lead the league with 43 sacks. When you watch this game on Sunday, pay attention to the trenches. With Domata Peko occupying center Maurkice Pouncey, Atkins will often be facing Steelers first-round rookie David DeCastro, who is making his second career start.
Eagles offense vs. Redskins defense
These teams met five weeks ago. In that game, the Redskins had a good game plan for facing an inexperienced quarterback and a makeshift offensive line: they crowded the line of scrimmage before the snap to command one-on-one pass-blocking scenarios. Sometimes they actually brought the heat, other times they didn’t. The tactic worked because Washington’s secondary played stifling two-man coverage against Philadelphia’s wide receivers. The Eagles gave Nick Foles a lot of three-step timed plays and designed reads early in the game, but as things progressed and the score became more unbalanced, they asked more and more of the rookie. Foles did a good job keeping his eyes downfield when eluding the rush, but he didn’t process coverages quickly. His ball placement outside the numbers wasn’t especially sharp either. These issues have since been improved somewhat, but we’ll see how Foles holds up against a hot defense that’s facing him for a second time.
Redskins offense vs. Eagles defense
As for what happened on this side of the ball last meeting, the Eagles essentially played with no discipline, especially up front. Robert Griffin, who spent virtually the entire game in pistol or shotgun, made them pay several times, and he could have had even gaudier stats if he’d pulled the trigger on all the downfield throws that were there. The Eagles defense has played better lately, thanks in large part to the sterling man coverage of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who’s finishing strong on what’s personally been a fairly down year. But given Griffin’s mobility, it’s likely that Philadelphia’s secondary will find itself having to drop into zone on a fairly regular basis.
Vikings offense vs. Texans defense
One of the hallmarks of Adrian Peterson’s unbelievable six-game stretch -- in which he’s averaging over 170 yards per outing on the ground -- has been Minnesota’s use of multi-back sets. In the past, Peterson did not thrive behind a lead-blocker because he doesn’t run with a whole lot of patience. He’s recently matured in this sense, while the Vikings have helped him out by not having his lead-blocks go to the actual point of attack. Instead, the backfield blockers have essentially been like a sixth offensive linemen. Or a seventh offensive linemen, since the Vikings these days -- especially on first down -- like to go with full house and inverted wishbone backfields.
Texans offense vs. Vikings defense
Texans backup right tackle Ryan Harris has done a very stellar job filling in for an injured Derek Newton since Thanksgiving. The only glaring issues he’s had came when he first entered the Thanksgiving game against Detroit and immediately got beat with stunts by Cliff Avril. Since then, Harris has held his own (with some help) against respectable pass-rushers like Tennessee’s Derrick Morgan and New England’s Trevor Scott. This Sunday, Harris was in line to face his biggest challenge yet in Minnesota’s Brian Robison. The sixth-year defensive end continues to be a poor man’s Jared Allen (that’s a compliment), dominating entire quarters with his initial quickness outside and his short-area athleticism at the line of scrimmage. Robison is as good as any non-Texans defender when it comes to batting down balls at the line of scrimmage. However, he’s likely to miss this game with a shoulder injury. That opens the door for Everson Griffen, Minnesota’s über-athletic joker. Griffen lacks polish but has an abundance of speed.
Browns offense vs. Broncos defense
Some of the weaknesses that Brandon Weeden's been showing are a little concerning given where we are in the season. Most notably, Weeden hasn’t been a comfortable anticipation passer. He’s left a lot of throws on the field simply by refusing to pull the trigger before seeing the receiver break open. In this process, he’s had a tendency to lock onto reads. These aren’t things you can get away with when facing an elite defense like Denver’s.
Broncos offense vs. Browns defense
From the totally opposite end of the spectrum, we offer a little more praise of Peyton Manning. Something the four-(and perhaps soon-to-be five-) time MVP does extremely well that few people talk about is constantly moving his feet in the pocket. You’ll notice that Manning is always on the balls of his feet, chopping them up and down. This allows Manning to always maintain his throwing mechanics even under duress. He is the only quarterback in the league, with perhaps the exception of Drew Brees, who plays this way all the time. All the others -- even the great ones --have to recollect their mechanics in some fashion when under duress.
49ers offense vs. Seahawks defense
One of the intriguing matchups in this game will be when Michael Crabtree aligns to the right. There he’ll be across from Seahawks stud second-year corner Richard Sherman, assuming Sherman isn't suspended after his appeal hearing on Friday. Crabtree doesn’t have the raw speed and quickness to get away from the physical, shifty Sherman. But what he does have is rare body control. In short areas and in turning upfield, Crabtree is as limber as any receiver in the league. It’s something Sherman got a glimpse of in Week 7 when these teams met. But in Week 7, Crabtree wasn’t playing with as much polish as he’s shown over the past month-and-a-half. He also wasn’t playing with a quarterback who can throw rocket balls anywhere on the field.
Seahawks offense vs. 49ers defense
Besides improved use of Russell Wilson’s mobility through more read-options, perhaps the biggest reason Seattle’s offense has blossomed down the stretch is its wide receivers now have clearly defined roles. Sidney Rice has emerged as the top target. He’s been the focal point of most gameplans, aligning both inside and outside. Golden Tate is the occasional downfield home run threat. More regularly, though, he’s a catch-and-run weapon -- especially on critical passing downs. The fact that these two are fairly versatile has allowed Seattle to incorporate more elements of disguise into their passing system.